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St. Paul, Minn. — When 6th District Rep. Mark Kennedy first ran for office against incumbent DFLer David Minge, few figured the political newcomer could succeed. Kennedy beat the odds in 2000, in part because of his characteristic campaign hustle.
Kennedy now finds himself the incumbent facing a challenge from a newcomer, but his style is still the same. You'll find him taking every opportunity to shake hands with potential voters.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Kennedy mingles with the crowd at Game Fair in Ramsey. The annual event features bird call competitions, dog jumping and clay shooting.
Both Kennedy and President Bush have booths at this event. They see this as a potential gold mine for votes. During an interview that goes over the event's PA system, Kennedy makes his appeal to this audience.
"Sportsmen's issues -- expanding habitat, making sure we're protecting our Second Amendment rights (to keep and bear arms) -- are all very important to me," Kennedy says.
Kennedy is locked in what some consider to be the most competitive congressional race in Minnesota. Well-known child advocate Patty Wetterling is challenging the incumbent. It's clear that many sportsmen, like Bert Williams with the Anoka County chapter of Pheasants Forever, support Kennedy in this race.
"Mark Kennedy has been a real backer of the sportsman," Williams says. "As far as giving land back and retiring land as far as the watersheds ... as a sportsman, you just have to back him."
Mark Kennedy has been a real backer of the sportsman. As far as giving land back, and retiring land as far as the watersheds ... as a sportsman, you just have to back him.
In a year when no vote is being left to chance, Kennedy is hoping to use sportsmen's issues and his experience to distinguish himself from his DFL opponent.
Wetterling has strong name recognition from the work she's done on behalf of missing children. Her own son, Jacob, was abducted in 1989 and has never been found.
Kennedy's strategy regarding Wetterling is to not talk about her. In fact, he'll tell voters that he's running for re-election and not running against anyone. He says he prefers to talk about his voting record and experience.
"My campaign last time was focused on getting that record of accomplishment out to the voters -- continuing to listen, as I have been, and respond to their needs," Kennedy says. "My campaign this year will be the same way."
On another day, Kennedy is still in his customary campaign attire -- a red plaid shirt and khaki slacks. This time, Kennedy is trying to secure his base at an event in Stearns County. The occasion last month was the grand opening of the Bush/Cheney re-election headquarters in Stearns County.
Kennedy's voting record is consistent with the president's policies. Both support the war in Iraq, tax cuts to help spur economic development, and both oppose legalized abortion and gay marriage. Kennedy says he bases his votes on the principles stressed by his family.
"We benefit our economy, and people's jobs, and their prosperity by expanding freedom -- not government," Kennedy says. "We need to keep America and the world safe by being strong, and facing the risks that face us and that we stand for the fundamental values. It just so happens that President Bush agrees with my mother more often than not."
Minnesota's 6th Congressional District encompasses St. Cloud, the northern Twin Cities suburbs, and runs east to Stillwater and Woodbury. The district leans Republican and is socially conservative. But the voters also have an independent streak. Anoka and Washington counties were strong supporters of Jesse Ventura's 1998 run for governor.
And while Kennedy is extremely popular with Republicans in his district, he also receives heavy criticism from Democrats.
During this parade in Stillwater, one unidentified voter questioned Kennedy's votes on the war and tax cuts.
"We're doing the wrong thing," the voter said. "Corporate profits are not what's most important. Our children are important, not corporate profits."
The Wetterling campaign hopes to use those issues to encourage independents to vote for her. Wetterling also says Kennedy is too aligned with President Bush to represent the independent-minded district.
"He has voted straight party line," Wetterling says. "I hope to be a reasonable voice that can work with people on all sides, and can figure out reasonable solutions to really tough decisions that we have to make in today's world."
Wetterling's recent fundraising success is also attracting national attention. The National Republican Congressional Committee says it will help Kennedy with his fundraising efforts.